Research and conservation group’s land-based nursery opens

A new, land-based coral nursery is bringing a new kind of reef restoration to Key Largo. 

Community leaders and Mote Marine Laboratory staff gathered on Aug. 11 at Reefhouse Resort & Marina to celebrate Mote’s second satellite nursery in the Upper Keys. In May 2021, the marine research and conservation organization completed its first land-based nursery on the grounds of the famed Bud ‘N Mary’s Marina in Islamorada. 

Mote’s science-based restoration efforts in the Florida Keys date back several decades. To date, Mote has outplanted over 140,000 coral fragments on Florida’s Coral Reef, with a survival rate of over 90% in most cases. Additionally, several thousand corals are growing in Mote’s land-based nurseries on Summerland Key and Islamorada, as well as Mote’s two underwater nurseries in the Lower Keys.

Michael Crosby, president and CEO of Mote, told community leaders at the recent ribbon cutting that a new facility at Reefhouse is huge for the coral reefs and the Key Largo community. 

“Residents here in the Keys understand the importance of these coral reefs,” he said. “You understand in your backyard what’s important and how these reefs are connected to every aspect of life. Without these coral reefs, the Keys don’t exist.”

Land nurseries such as the one located at Reefhouse provide a more integrated reef restoration approach. Some native coral species, such as elkhorn coral, grow faster after fragmentation on land compared to in-water fragmentation. 

Mote said in-water nurseries will still be utilized to grow other significant coral species. Land-based and in-water restoration provides Mote a unique advantage to further its resilience-based restoration along Florida’s Coral Reef. 

Concerned about the plight of the reefs, Crosby traveled to Tallahassee in 2014 to convince state leaders that investing in coral restoration was a priority not only for the Keys and South Florida, but also the state. Crosby needed a legislator to champion the initiative. That’s when he had the chance to talk with state Rep. Holly Merrill Raschein for roughly 10 minutes during a busy session.

“Staff said if you can be by this door, she’s in there. You only got two minutes. Make your case. She came out and she gave me 10 minutes,” he said. “When I talked to her, her eyes lit up. She believed what we were talking about. I knew that not only Mote, but our coral reefs found their champion in Tallahassee.” 

On Aug. 12, Crosby and Merrill Raschein joined Mote researchers onboard Rainbow Reef’s dive boat to outplant the first 50 elkhorn and 50 staghorn corals at French Reef.

“The fact they’ll be able to do what they’ve done in the Lower Keys here in Key Largo, where there’s so much action on the reef and diving, I’m excited about it,” she said.

Crosby said Mote searched for a site with great water quality and plenty of space in Key Largo. More importantly, Crosby said they needed a property owner who was a visionary philanthropically. Crosby said Mark Walsh, owner of Key Largo’s Reefhouse and the Opal Collection, recognized Mote’s leadership and science-based restoration. Walsh pledged the property and $1.5 million to address the coral restoration response.

Walsh’s family business began in the 1970s when his dad bought the Holiday Inn in Marathon. Walsh is also the owner of Pier B in Key West. Upon hearing claims that cruise ships were affecting the reef, Walsh set out to do some research. He ultimately found himself on Crosby’s doorsteps.  

“I thought if those reefs were above ground and everyone could see them dying right in front of your eyes, the money that Crosby was talking about, to me in a state like this, should be easy to raise,” he said. “We thought this was a great cause. We asked him what he needed. And we were all on board.”

With the nursery up and running, Sarah Hamlyn, Mote senior biologist, said they will focus on getting coral propagated and creating an offshore nursery. Hamlyn said French Reef was once a good habitat for elkhorn and staghorn species. 

“They’re really great fish habitat corals,” Hamlyn said. “Elkhorn is also a robust coral that helps in building the reef.”

During the ceremony, state Rep. Jim Mooney provided Crosby with a $1 million check. Funds were secured during the 2021-22 legislative session in Tallahassee. Mooney said it wouldn’t have been possible without the help of state Sen. Ana Maria Rodriguez.

Jim McCarthy is a Western New Yorkers who escaped the snow and frigid temperatures for warm living by the water. A former crime & court reporter and city editor for two Western New York newspapers, Jim has been honing his craft since he graduated from St. Bonaventure University in 2014. In his 3-plus years in the Keys, Jim has enjoyed connecting with the community. “One of my college professors would always preach to be curious,” he said. “Behind every person is a story that’s unique to them, and one worth telling. As writers, we are the ones who paint the pictures in the readers minds of the emotions, the struggles and the triumphs.” Jim is past president of the Key Largo Sunset Rotary Club, which is composed of energetic members who serve the community’s youth and older populations. Jim is a sports fanatic who loves to watch football, mixed martial arts and golf. He loves to hit the links and play some softball with his Make A Play team. He also enjoys time with family and his new baby boy, Lucas, who arrived Oct. 4, 2022.